Sydney's competitive chefs
3 Mar 2012 by Nick Lander

This article was also published in the Financial Times.


I arrived in Sydney feeling 'crook', or sick in Australian. This led, most unexpectedly, to a ten-minute lecture on the state of this city's restaurants as compared with those of Melbourne, its main rival, at 9.45 on a Monday morning from the doctor I had been sent to. Having noted my profession, he promptly set out the reasons why he preferred the restaurants of Melbourne to those of his home town. Only then did he turn to me.

These firmly held opinions are, however, the key to the particular confidence of Australia's top chefs, a sentiment that in turn is such a boon to their customers. In no other country I can think of is there such intense, although often friendly, rivalry between those running restaurants in two cities of similar size so relatively close to one another. There is certainly nothing like this in England, France or Italy and it may only be replicated in the US between those in San Francisco and Los Angeles but Australians are, I believe, so much more competitive.

While I was to discover that this doctor was right about the most ambitious restaurants in each city, I went on to eat at three excellent restaurants in Sydney's Central Business District, as well as The Four in Hand Dining Room, a fifteen-minute taxi ride away in Paddington. These meals could only have been more enjoyable if the Australian dollar had been a lot weaker.

The first was over lunch with Luke Mangan, the brains behind the bustling Glass brasserie in the Hilton, who spent two years under Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, Bray, and then a further two with Rowley Leigh, fellow FT columnist and owner and head chef of Le Café Anglais in London W2.

We met at a window table at Est (pictured above), overlooking George Street, where Peter Doyle cooks with the confidence and restraint that comes only with years at the stoves; and where one dish did as much for my recovery as the antibiotics I had just been prescribed. It was a green tomato gazpacho - fresh, lively and soothing - poured on top of a dish containing diced black olives, a single, large poached scampi and two slices of grilled sour dough. And, interestingly, while the skill of the dish lay in the shimmering gazpacho, it was the sour dough, its least expensive ingredient, which added the vital texture.

Round the corner in a basement in Bridge Street, Barry McDonald, a New Zealander who worked as a waiter for me in London over 30 years ago, has opened his fourth branch of Fratelli Fresh, his bar, café and food shop.

These take their inspiration from the trattorie of northern Italy that McDonald selflessly trawls each year but, transposed to the southern hemisphere, they manage to convey an even greater sense of fun. The first manifestation of this are the shelves loaded with Australian fruit and vegetables of such ripeness, colour and vivacity that they come as a complete shock to any European. The second is the juxtaposition of the blackboard menus, packed with delicious Italian dishes written in Italian, but cooked in open kitchens by a largely Asian brigade. The third is the relatively reasonable prices. McDonald began in the food wholesale business so buys well and looks for volume rather than hefty margins. Fratelli Fresh will particularly appeal for those travelling with hungry children.

No more than a mile away, in what was built in 1936 in Art Deco style as a temple to Mammon, Neil Perry, chef, restaurateur and McDonald's closest friend, has established Rockpool Bar & Grill, as an extraordinary setting for carefully sourced, well-executed food and great wine.

RockpoolSpread over two floors, 14,000 square feet and with 6,000 Riedel glasses hanging as a single display over the bar, this restaurant reminded me only of Eleven Madison Park, New York, in its grandeur but resonated with me, as a former restaurateur, as no other. Here, if I were 30 years younger, I would be thrilled and excited to call my professional home.

Instead, I had to make do as a customer albeit on three separate occasions. Firstly, for a dinner that began with a plate of raw ocean trout, yellow fin tuna and Hiramasa kingfish followed by a Rangers Valley 300-day grain-fed rib eye steak; then for a quick lunch of a salad of baby cos lettuce, anchovies topped with a slow-cooked egg and a glass of Riesling; and, finally, for coffee in the bar with friends where the competition to finish the plates of salted butter caramels and dark chocolate bark interlaced with cashews and sesames was almost unseemly, so good were they.

My only disappointment at The Four in Hand Dining Room, where Dublin-born Colin Fassnidge is cooking with such conviction, was that I could not persuade any of the three ladies I had the pleasure of taking there to share the shoulder of lamb for two, which was being served to the table next to us as we sat down. Instead, we settled for pork cromesquis, deep-fried balls of succulent meat, with sage remoulade; liquorice-braised brisket with slowly roasted celeriac; and that day's special of an unlikely but delicious combination of pig's tail, crab meat, and roast sweetcorn topped with a lobster bisque.

Fassnidge's approach is as exciting as the setting in this old but now sensitively restored pub is engaging. Our conversation flowed.

Est, www.merivale.com.au/est
Fratelli Fresh, www.fratellifresh.com.au
Rockpool Bar & Grill, www.rockpool.com/sydney/bar-and-grill
The Four in Hand Dining Room, www.fourinhand.com.au